An Open Letter To Foreigners Planning To Visit India

I wrote this letter in 2015 to a group of friends (mostly Americans, Canadians and Brits) who were traveling with me to visit India, many for the first time. Although some of the material is now dated, most of it remains (sometimes sadly) relevant. I hope it may serve as a useful guide for other travelers as well.

POLITICS

This is a great article about Narendra Modi, the current Prime Minister of India. It was written before he was elected and traces why the rise of the right wing Hindu government is very worrisome. While most people in India and around the world (President Obama included) laud the rise of this ‘new progressive India’ that is ‘open for business’, it has meant a Hindu nationalistic agenda that marginalizes minorities, is reigning back environmental safeguards, and wildlife protection, (for cobras and tigers for examples), curtailing academic freedoms, persecuting intellectuals, rewriting history, increasing surveillance and finally threatening and murdering opponents. The truly chilling part is that you’ll find most people have been swept up in nationalistic fervor and have conveniently forgotten the very recent ugly genocidal past. My opinion (as well as this author’s and those of most of my friends) is in the minority. The article is from a magazine called Caravan, which is India’s only long-form English-language journal of politics and culture.

CASTE SYSTEM

While I was aware, growing up, of the caste system around me, I never really understood how deeply the ironclad framework divided India’s social structure. I’m ashamed to say I didn’t realize it’s extent–and the depth of its grip on and oppression of lower castes–until I read this essay by Arundhati Roy. The dominance and terrorism by the Hindu leadership seems to be a common thread through India’s history. The essay is an introduction to the book, Annihilation of Caste by B.R. Ambedkar. He was a Dalit (so-called ‘untouchable’); fought for equality as well as for women’s rights; and managed to include some safeguards for lower castes in the Indian Constitution. His relationship with Gandhi (who saw to it that the caste system remained in place) is particularly eye-opening.

CULTURAL APPROPRIATION

Here’s an article on cultural appropriation in pop culture that I think is on point.

Why does cultural appropriation matter? Here’s an example.

I wish there were more movements like this.

As a yoga teacher, it’s been complicated for me to unravel the Hinduism that I grew up around, the appropriation of Hindu symbols, gods and script in yoga, and the real benefits of yoga. Cultural appropriation in yoga frustrates me because symbols such as the Om symbol and sound, Sanskrit and Vedic texts, the Bhagavad Gita, and images of Hindu gods are explicitly Hindu in nature and are often evoked to justify communal violence by individuals who raze mosques, convert tribal communities, and dominate what is supposed to be a secular nation. The Hindu extremists haven’t missed the opportunity to promote yoga as a New Age spiritual model in their own interests (see this article breaking down the International Yoga Day which was promoted by the Modi government). For those interested in the western postural developments of yoga, you can read Yoga Body by Mark Singleton.

On a lighter note, this is an amazing, hilarious video about what it feels like to be Indian in a yoga class.

And here’s Deepak Chopra and Aseem Shukla (of the Hindu American Foundation) debating Yoga and Hinduism.

KASHMIR

The long-standing Indian military occupation of Kashmir is one of the most troubling and contentious issues now facing Indian society. This is probably not the map of India you’re used to seeing, and yet, in India, it is all but impossible to find a map that does not include Jammu and Kashmir. It would be seen as downright unpatriotic. For searing analysis of the conflict and the occupation, as well as the suffering of the mostly Muslim population of the occupied territories, please read Arundhati Roy’s Capitalism: A Ghost Story. It is short, accessible, passionately-written, and a great jumping off point for getting acquainted with the real issues confronting India today.

STORIES

In general, when it comes to reading books about India, anything that piques your curiosity is wonderful! I encourage you to read Indian books by Indian authors from an Indian perspective. As Chimamanda Adichie said in her amazing TED Talk, in western literature there is a persistent problem with the single story that allows only a singular point of view. From this western perspective, unfortunately, India is often painted in broad, sweeping brush strokes as a large homogenous, mystical, spiritual, fantasy land of beautiful, poor, dirty, simple, good-hearted people dressed in exotic, colorful clothes and speaking broken English in a funny accent as viewed through the eyes of a foreign white protagonist, who often turns out to be a savior figure. This article about writing tropes on Africa is similarly on point. Such writing promotes the objectification of people, place, and culture from the outside, rather than instilling new ideas and meaningful understanding as shared by someone within. The fantasy is familiar, and we’ve seen it in Slumdog Millionaire, Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, and Eat Pray Love to name a few prominent examples. The reality is much more diverse, complicated, and interesting. That being said, here are a few of my recs.

FICTION

The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy: a beautifully-written (Booker Award-winning) lyrical novel about caste set in Kerala that charts the ultimate disintegration of a family in the face of social injustice. Kerala is the one place I’m especially sad we won’t be visiting on this trip.

Bombay Stories by Sadaat Hasan Manto: poignant, funny stories about Bombay in the ’30s and ’40s. Manto is famous for his feeling for the poor who constituted (and still constitute) the city’s vast underclass.

A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth: sweeping epic narrative about the birth of modern India that follows multiple interconnected families (Hindu and Muslim) in North India after Partition. The protagonist is a woman.

V.S. Naipaul: for insight on the Indian-expatriate experience in the first half of the 20th century. Though Naipul was Trinidadian, Oxford-educated, and lived only a relatively short time in India, his writing is highly preoccupied with the meaning of his Indian heritage. His novel Half a Life might be a good jumping off point.

Jhumpa Lahiri: for insight on the Indian-expatriate experience in the second half of the 20th century, primarily in the United States. Neither Tom nor I is particularly partial to her writing, but The Namesake and the Interpreter of Maladies are both much-loved by many.

NONFICTION

Maximum City by Suketu Mehta: panoramic first-person account of late 20th century Bombay. Some of the most captivating writing that’s been done about the city. I’d consider it a must-read before our trip, and–along with the article on Modi above, and Capitalism: A Ghost Story–this is my top recommendation.

Annihilation of Caste by B.R. Ambedkar: an undelivered speech that dissects India’s caste system in detail. It went undelivered when Ambedkar’s invitation to speak was withdrawn owing to the speech’s ‘unbearable content’. Essential reading for a true understanding of caste in India and the 20th century history that has kept that system in place.

Field notes on Democracy by Arundhati Roy: incisive and damning set of essays on developments in Indian politics and economy in the last 20 years. To truly appreciate the transformations that have taken place in India since the opening of its economy to global markets in 1991, there are few better starting places than this book.

IN CONCLUSION

Much of the above is not altogether encouraging and, at times, more than a little grim, but the trip will be that much more meaningful if you take the time, and make the effort–emotionally and intellectually–to dig into the more challenging aspects of the history and culture of India.

There are too many brilliant and thoughtful people to name who are writing, or have written about India. A few other secondary suggestions, if the above aren’t enough: Amitav Gosh, Amartya Sen, Anuradha Roy and Neel Mukherjee.